Kate’s Walk

Walking Papers is a project designed by Michal Migurski of Stamen Design in San Francisco. I first learned of it at SXSW in Austin when I heard Michal speak on the “Maps, Books, Spimes, Paper: Post-digital Media Design” panel. Paola also heard about it when she visited Maneesh Agrawala in Berkeley last February, and we were recently reminded of it again when we met with Eric Rodenbeck, also of Stamen Design, here at MoMA.   It is a service that uses a combination of wiki-style mapping and pen and paper.  In order to really understand how it works, I tried it out this past weekend.

Walking Papers is an easy way to get information into the free, editable wiki-style map, OpenStreetMap. Basic information—like street names or big colleges and parks, for instance—is already available in OpenStreetMap because of data provided by the city, government and other organizations.  However, there is a lot of useful data missing, especially amenities like post office boxes, ATMs, restaurants, supermarkets, coffee shops and Laundromats.  It’s this detailed street level surveying that Walking Papers allows you to do without needing expensive equipment or having to be too tech-savvy.

How does Walking Papers work? On the site, you select the area you wish to map, and the software automatically formats the area you choose for printing and tags the area with a QR tag.  You then take to the street, penciling in data as you go.  I chose to map my walk to the train every morning, through South Slope Brooklyn. I printed out this blank map (part of the charm of the Walking Papers site is that you can see who has made prints, how recently, and where they are from.  Today there seems to be a lot from Germany, some from Ireland, France, Ethiopia and Sweden) and went for a walk.  I filled in the subway stops, playground, restaurants, bars, coffee shops, ATMs, post boxes, supermarkets and liquor store I came across.  Here is my map (clicking on it makes it bigger):

My walk to the R train

I then scanned (if you don’t have a scanner, you can send it to them, via snail mail, and it will get scanned and uploaded eventually) and uploaded my map via the Walking Papers site.  With the help of the QR tag and Flickr, it knows exactly where to position it in OpenStreetMap.  The map-editing window is displayed directly over my hand written map, so I can trace my findings directly into OpenStreetMap (you do have to sign up for an account with OpenStreetMap, but that is painless).  Here is the finished portion of South Slope that I mapped (you have to zoom in a bit to see the changes that I made).  It is definitely addicting, and I spent a fair amount of time arranging a particular post box, trying to reflect, as accurately as possible, on which exact corner of the intersection it is. As my coworker said, we have “definitely fallen down the rabbit hole that is OpenStreetMap.”

Since I am not a professional cartographer, I did have a little trouble—some of the things I entered did not show up in OpenStreetMap—this was not the fault of Walking Papers, it seemed to be OpenStreetMap. (It may have, in fact, been human error.  But if there is anyone out there who is an experienced OpenStreetMapper—and you have an idea why my ATMs aren’t showing up—let me know.) What is great is that you can also see other people’s scans, from when and where, and Michal has broken down the stats for us in a well-designed way (we have come to expect no less from Stamen).  There are definitely a lot more people printing out there than scanning, so do your own, but be sure to scan and upload it.  It’s a big world out there, and your corner of it needs illuminating.

Why is it good for Talk to Me? Walking Papers is an interface that has made a complex process—digital mapping—and a democratic service—OpenStreetMap—clear and even more approachable by re-designing the process and technology that is needed to map detailed areas.  Walking Papers has harnessed the power of the communication tools already at our disposal to collect data, from all over the world.  It helps us to easily visualize areas that had no way of being mapped before; it’s varied applications are now being recognized. Walking Papers has proven useful in disaster situations, in Haiti, for example, when the existing mapped infrastructure was suddenly destroyed.  Camps, hospitals, and what is left can be charted in a matter of hours with a printer, scanner, and an army of helpers equipped with pens and paper.  It has also proven useful in unexpected situations—Eric told us about a sociologist working at a high school who is using Walking Papers to have students map out where certain cliques hang out in the school yard—a useful tool for navigating the complex social life of American teenagers.

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